I recently watched “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief“. Three things, I realised:
- L. Ron Hubbard (or “LRH”, as he’s affectionately referred to) was a bit sickening to watch talk. Something about his bottom lip.
- Which was especially unfortunate, because whatever his theological aspirations, they apparently didn’t extend to dental hygiene.
- I realise points 1 and 2 make me sound both biased and shallow. Which, you know, true. But even if the documentary and I are both biased – there was direct video footage of LRH. And the trouble is that a lot of what he said sounded incredibly lucid and reasonable, all the way to the part about volcanos and thetans. And that, right there, is the devastatingly dangerous kind of human: rational, smart, personable, almost certainly a sociopath.
As most people know, LRH is especially famous for this line:
“Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
Which I’ve written about before – so I thought I’d do a little update and replay.
When I read articles about people like Bishop Edir Macedo, I find my own inner peace cracking under an onslaught of irritation. I’m just not convinced that peddling salvation is fair play in the world of free markets – it’s like a teacher telling her students* that there is a correlation between end-of-term-gifts-for-teacher and exam results. Some might call that an authoritarian abuse of the child’s fear of failure.
*After all, aren’t we all children in this context?
But somehow, when it comes to the fear of death and damnation (some might say: the Ultimate Failure), then there is no apparent problem with asking the freshly-converted to purchase their salvation for 10% of monthly income. Which begs the question:
- Why does tithing work?
But before I get there, some background:
The Evolution of a Divine Business Model
- The church begins small: a backyard, underground community of the broken under the leadership of a likewise-broken founder-leader.
- The community grows, and begins to need bigger spaces and more formalised routines.
- The founder asks the community to help cover the cost of renting an auditorium on a Sunday, the cost of hiring lighting equipment, and the cost of organising a sound system. So the foundling Church begins to host bake sales and fund-raising drives.
- As more money comes in, nicer auditoriums are rented, better sound systems are acquired, and so on.
- More people are drawn in by this sense of community and its attractive sense of purpose.
- The Founder realises that he can’t drive the whole thing on his own. So he re-organises the church leadership into a group of elders, under the inspiration of the Book of Acts and a few choice verses from the Pauline epistles.
- The Founder tries to make sure that the congregation feel closer to God during his services. He appoints choir leaders and introduces instrumentation.
- The group of elders, chaired by the Founder, begin to take ownership of the fund-raising activities of the Church. They realise that all those bake-sales are continuously asking Church members to give of their time and resources (which some do more than others), and that this is beginning to cause resentment and tension within the flock.
- After this revelation, the Founder begins to make calls from the pulpit. He points out that the historical faiths had a practice of giving tithes to the Temple. He sees his congregation spending money on new cars, on new clothing, on fancy parties and big wedding celebrations. He asks whether they are really putting God first – because surely they should be gifting back just a small portion of the bounteous gifts that they have received? Say 10% of their remuneration. But no pressure – just whatever they feel they can offer. Be guided.
- Certain members of the congregation react with fervour.
- The Founder publicly thanks these initial supporters for their generosity, calling them “blessed” and “filled with the Spirit”. And expresses confidence that their generosity will be returned “a hundredfold”.
- The rest of the congregation joins in, longing also to be praised and named as blessed. Also, the hundredfold.
- The Church continues to grow as the money floods in.
- Suddenly, there are bookshops and radio stations, retreats and cell groups.
- The Church becomes missionary, requiring members to continue contributing to the spreading of God’s Word.
- Tithing is formalised into a
requiredstrongly-encouraged debit order. Servers begin to wander through the congregation during the services with credit card machines, in case anyone would prefer to avoid holding cash.
- The Church starts investing her spare money.
- The Founder, still broken, gets sued for tax evasion by the State.
What Happens Next
Once the Church becomes a haven for tax-free money (lest we forget, all non-profits get tax benefits), it can start to attract the kind of unscrupulous leader whose good intentions just “fortuitously” coincide with his ability to live like a Kardashian.
And look at what he’d be blessed with:
- A captive consumer base – held in check by their longing for acceptance and their deep fear of death (or hell after death).
- Annuity income from those consumers.
- All for the price of good lighting and lyrically-selective rock music.
Which is the kind of situation that is open to abuse.
And after that?
Well – at this point, you should ask the Catholic Church what happens. Because greedy spiritual leaders cause Reformations and schisms; which are the religious equivalent of rival brands entering the market, offering the same service at less cost. So selling indulgences becomes a bit of a no-go area; and the institutionalised Church moves toward becoming more self-sustaining and less demanding of the Faithful. Serving rather than insisting on service.
But that’s terrible for business – because attendance begins to dwindle, and the donations begin to dry up.
But why is that?
And at least part of the answer is that there are good reasons why tithing works to keep people in the fold.
Why People Tithe
Here’s a parallel: if your partner demanded nothing of you – neither fidelity, credit card nor attention – what kind of marriage would you have?
It would be perfect for some, I’m sure. Zero obligation and all that.
But for most of us, it would be empty and boring: what I want, when I want it, for free, no strings. There would be no reason to value the relationship, because it asks nothing of me. So why should a Faithful relationship be any different?
Once I start tithing, I am invested in the Church. I have paid my membership fees, and I can be welcomed into the club with the self-surety of knowing that I have a right to be there.
Also: it will pay off.
When you’re part of a club, you’re part of the network. And when you’re part of a network, you’re in luck*. After all, the Church is now an expanding network of individuals. Suddenly, people in the Church appear more “blessed” as they benefit from exposure to a social network united in a cause of mutual obligation.
*For a fuller explanation, you should check out Richard Wiseman’s “The Luck Factor”. The luckiest people have the largest social circles. It’s not a coincidence.
Which makes tithing a small cost with great return.
But after all that, let me return to the schoolteacher pointing out to her students that their grades are for sale.
If I were able to buy my exam results with apples and chocolate and floral arrangements, then that would also be “a small cost with great return”… But would you still want to hire me?
Probably not. Because you’d quickly establish that I’m not educated – I just paid for a grade transcript.
My main question: what if the congregation hits the Pearly Gates, only to find out that they’re not actually the faithful, but that they really just paid for a club membership card?
Here’s the link to the old post: The Economics of Faith: Once Bitten, Tithe Shy
Also, for the record, I want to point out that I’m not a religious skeptic. I choose to believe in my God and His Church because that is what makes sense for me. But that doesn’t mean that one needs to be blind to unscrupulous and/or pharisaic church leaders that twist Faith.
Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.